21 July 2021

On The Road With Al and Ivy: A Homeless Literary Chronicle

I never much liked the published version of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, but the original "scroll" version, described in this blog post, sounds much more interesting. I'll be on the lookout for a copy. On The Road With Al and Ivy: A Homeless Literary Chronicle: On The Road With Al and Ivy: A Homeless Literary Chronicle - May 2021:
In 2009, the unpublished 1951 version of Jack Kerouac's book, "On The Road" was released and gave many of the admirers of the 1957 version a chance to revisit the work and it's legacy.

Allen Ginsberg, the legendary Beat poet and close friend, felt that the 1957 version of the book had removed much of the "mad energy" and life of Kerouac's story. Which is true, the Original "Scroll" version, which was typed out on eight long sheets of drafting paper and taped together into a single scroll, differs in some important ways.

The 1957 version was toned down, particularly in sexual details like the sexuality of some of the characters and all of the people in the book were given fictitious names. Which given the straight laced atmosphere of the 50s era, wasn't surprising, and using the real names of living persons can make any book risky to publish.

The Original Scroll (like it's later published version) had an episodic approach to story telling, moving from one scene to another as it appeared in Kerouac's head, as opposed to events tied to a linear time frame. He spends time in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, yet describes very little of what he saw. Days or weeks are often covered with a single sentence, yet many pages are devoted to conversations with a friend or friends, and if he's waiting for money to come via mail (or wages on payday), he'll just skip over to it's arrival and then the narrative becomes full again.

The first book of Jack Kerouac's that I read, back in 1960, was The Dharma Bums, and I liked it a lot better than On the Road and indeed most of his other books. When I first heard of Jack Kerouac, he was presented to me as a pilgrim of the Absolute, and a symbol of a counterculture. I could find those easily in The Dharma Bums, but not so easily in On the Road. But perhaps reading the original scroll version will give a different view.

16 July 2021

New meanings for old words: Based

I knew what "based on" meant, but then I started seeing some strange usage of "based" on social media. People started talking about things being "based" off, or just "based", and I didn't know what they were talking about. 

I asked on the question & answer site Quora, but no one there was able to tell me. I then asked on Twitter, and Duncan Reyburn kindly gave me the answer:

'Based' is almost equal to Heidegger's notion of authenticity. It's a complement[aic], usually meaning something like 'courageous or not caring what others think'. The opposite of 'based' is 'cringe'. 'Based off' (usually with an 'of') at the end is just bad English for 'based on'.

So I post this in case anyone else was wondering what these expressions meant. 

"Based" looks as though it might be quite a useful word, but I'm not sure about "cringe". Cringe is what I do when someone utters opinions that are not based. Perhaps the older "politically correct" is more appropriate there -- uttering opinions because you think it is politic to do so because you fear the power of those who hold them. But yes, that is cringing too. 

"Based off" is somewhat different. I did know the meaning of "based off", it's just that people seemed to be using it in contexts where it made no sense. Something could, for example, be "based off the coast of Italy", meaning that it was based on an offshire Island somewhere. Back in the 1960s there were pirate radio stations based off the coast of Britain, on ships out at sea. In those contexts the usage makes sense, but in the ways I have seen it used in social media recently it did not. Unless "off" is the new "on" -- "Turn off the light -- it's too dark to see in here.". 



02 July 2021

She plays with the darkness

She Plays with the Darkness

She Plays with the Darkness by Zakes Mda
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Zakes Mda tells the truth about southern Africa, in that he gives a good picture of life and what makes people tick in various parts of the subcontinent; in this case, Lesotho. People sometimes distinguish between "character-driven" and "plot-driven" novels, and this one is definitely character driven.

The protagonists are the ambitious materialistic Radisene, who is always pursuing get-rich-quick schemes, and his mystical rather other-worldly sister Dikosha. They grew up in the mountain village of Ha Samane, and Zakes Mda paints a picture of village life which one cannot help but feel is authentic (Mda, though born in South Africa, grew up in such a village in Lesotho when his parents became political refugees). Like most small rural communities, Ha Samane thrives on gossip, and everyone knows everyone's business, with the exception of Radisene, who moves to the capital Maseru as soon as he leaves school. And Dikosha, who lives in a world of her own, with people of the past.

There are other memorable characters too. There is Sorry My Darlie, the professional soccer player who incites Radisene's envy and ambition with his affluent lifestyle, but he is also consumed by a hopeless unrequited love for Dikosha. There is the policeman, Trooper Motsohi, whose fortunes rise and fall usually in opposite cycles to Radisene, and also with the political changes in Lesotho, which are punctuated by coups. So when Trooper Motsohi is in the ascendant, Radisene's fortunes decline, but when the wheel turns their positions are reversed, and as the story progressed I was constantly reminded of the Tarot card of the Wheel of Fortune, which seemed to apply to the lives of many of the characters.

I remember the 1970 coup in Lesotho, when Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan, on discovering that he had lost an election, got the army to seize power and keep him in power. At the time we thought it was Greek-style democracy, as a group of colonels had seized power in Greece three years earlier in similar circumstances. This was featured in the film Z. A couple of years later the same thing happened in Chile. There was a saying, "Where there's a coup, there's a Colonel" and we used to speak of "Colonelissimo in Excelsis Leabua Jonathan". But what we didn't realise at the time was the extent of repression of the the ordinary citizens of Lesotho, which Zakes Mda brings out in his book.

It is a rather sad book, as we follow the lives and fortunes (and misfortunes) of the main characters, but also there is the feeling of life going on, seed-time and harvest, births and funerals, continue as people appear on the scene and depart.

View all my reviews

01 July 2021

Puck, plague and history

King Of Shadows

King Of Shadows by Susan Cooper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A surprisingly moving story about an orphan boy actor who is magically transported 400 years back from the 20th century to the original Globe theatre, where he performs in A Midsummer Night's Dream which he had been rehearsing for in his own time) and meets William Shakespeare himself.

This was the third book by Susan Cooper I'd read in the last couple of months, and I liked it a lot better than her The Dark is Rising. It invites comparison with another book I read not so long ago -- Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill -- see my review here.  

Both books feature Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream, and in both books children are plucked out of their own time into the past and discover something of past history. But I think Susan Cooper tells a better story, and tells it better than Kipling. I think Kipling's Kim is far better than his Puck of Pook's Hill, and have read that several times, but Kim is a spy story and a Bildungsroman, not fantasy.

King of Shadows also features bubonic plague, and reminded me of another historical fantasy book that featured that, which seemed appropriate reading for our times of quarantine. For more on that, and other plague-time reading, see Physical distance and social proximity in a time of plague.

 View all my reviews

21 June 2021

American culture through South African eyes

Cion (Toloki #2)

Cion by Zakes Mda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first book of Zakes Mda that I read was Ways of Dying, featuring Toloki, who decides to be a professional mourner, and appears again as the protagonist in this book. But I read it 20 years ago, so I can't remember much of it, and perhaps I need to read it again to understand this one.

In Cion Toloki has achieved some success in his career as a professional mourner in Johannesburg and is touring the world to study professional mourners in various cultures. He does this at the instigation of the mysterious sciolist, who I cannot remember from the first book at all. 

St Chad's College, Durham
I would like to know more, because the first place the sciolist sent Toloki to was Durham in England -- more specifically to Durham Cathedral, to the tombs of St Cuthbert and St Bede. And the sciolist himself appears to be connected with St Chad's College, just over the road from the cathedral. I am particularly interested in that because I spent two years studying at St Chad's College, one of them in a room with a view of the chapel of Nine Altars at the Cathedral, and the other with a view looking the opposite way over the River Wear and Kingsgate Bridge, and the People's Gin Palace, officially known as Dunelm House, now threatened with demolition after 60 years, whereas the cathedral has stood for about 900, all of which can be seen in the picture (taken from the tower of Durham Cathedral). So I really would like to know more about the sciolist.

In this book, however, Toloki spends only a short time in Durham, apparently as a tourist, but stays for more than a year in the small hamlet of Kilvert in south-eastern Ohio, where he spends much of the time with the Quigley family, Mahlon and Ruth, and their grown-up children Obed and Orpah. And the rest of the book is about a South African's attempts to make sense of the contradictions of American culture as shown in the microcosm of one family.

There are excursions into the family's past where some ancestors had been slaves in neighbouring Virginia, and it tells the story of the escape of two of them across the Ohio River, which is the River Jordan in the mythology of the slaves. And perhaps by some strange coincidence I had recently read and reviewed Seven Days to Freedom by John Davies. who has quite a bit to say about the symbolism of the River Jordan and the Ohio River in relation to slavery and freedom.
The message of the Bible has been transmitted across the centuries, and its symbols carry a rich cargo of meaning. It tells us that there is a ‘Red Sea’ for us to cross out of our present condition, and a ‘Jordan’ for us to cross into a new world. ‘Jordan’ remains still a boundary in the Middle East – a physical, social, and political symbol of the most intransigent of the world’s troubles. But also, ‘Jordan’ is, for many of us, the boundary which we look forward to crossing when we die. But also again, the original singers of songs like ‘Deep River, my home is over Jordan’, were slaves in the southern states of the USA, yearning for an escaperoute. For them ‘Jordan’ was the Ohio, the boundary between the southern slave-owning states and the free.

Reading Zakes Mda's book so soon after reading that made both seem more real. Part of the mythology of the slaves, and their descendants, involves the making of quilts, which, according to family legend tell the story of escaping from slavery.

In Ohio, the family ends up being a representative mix of most of the ethnic groups that make up the USA -- Shawnee, Cherokee, slaves of African descent, Irish and various "Caucasians", described by Toloki with a wry sense of humour, yet he grows to love them for all their foibles and idiosyncrasies, and they grow to love him with all his.

This is not my favourite book by Zakes Mda, perhaps because the cultural setting is so unfamiliar to me. I have spent only two weeks in the USA, and saw only a small part of it. Mda has spent much longer, and presumabably knows it better. What I do know, however, is that his books set in southern Africa, where he grew up, books like The Madonna of Excelsior and Black Diamond tell the truth about South Africa. They tell it like it is, and was. And so I suspect that his observations on American culture and American history in this book are spot on too, and that what he writes about slavery and slave life are substantially accurate.

Much of the book is written in the present tense, which I found a little strange, and I'd be interested in reading the reactions of Americans to this book, especially those who live, or have lived, in Ohio and Virginia.

On a more personal note, which doesn't really belong in the GoodReads review, is that I compared the experience of Toloki in a strange culture with my own, and with a chapter of a book I have been editing. 

The book chapter is about the reverse -- people of African descent in the New World who emigrated to Africa, mainly to places like Liberia and Sierra Leone, and whose attitudes to the local African people tended to be very similar to that of European settlers in Africa. 

When I went to England to study, I left in haste, because a security policeman wanted to give me a banning order which would have prevented my going overseas to study. With 8 months to wait before the term at St Chad's College started, I worked as a bus driver in London, and lodged with a landlady from Sierra Leone for seven months. But unlike Toloki, I was rather shy and retiring, and only really spoke to the landlady, Mrs Williams, when I paid the rent each week. Even after seeing them in church one Sunday, at St Leonard's Church in Streatham, I didn't speak to them much. I was too shy even to ask how the hot water system in the bathroom worked. Only towards the end of my stay did I begin to have actual conversations with the daughter, who was finishing high school and planning to go to university, and we talked about subjects we studied and things like that. 

So reading about Toloki made me think that I had missed really getting to know the family I was staying with, and the only real human contact I had was when I crossed London to visit other people I had known in South Africa. Toloki's relationship with the family he stayed with had its ups and downs, but in the end it seems that on balance both he and they benefited.

View all my reviews

13 June 2021

The Dark is Rising

The Dark is Rising

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When a reviewer of one of my books, Of Wheels and Witches, compared it with this one, and suggested that it might have been influenced by the The Dark is Rising sequence, I thought I'd better read it. So I read Over Sea, Under Stone which I enjoyed a lot, and now have read this one, which I didn't enjoy quite so much, and in writing this I'm trying to work out why I gave the first book 5 stars, and this one only 4.

There is little to link the two books. Over Sea, under Stone was set in Cornwall, this one is set in Buckinghamshire, with a completely different set of characters. Will Stanton is the youngest of a family of nine children, and discovers , on the day before his 11th birthday, that he is an "Old One" and that he has a quest to perform, to collect six signs made of different materials.


He is helped in this by a more experienced Old One, Merryman Lyon, who is the only character who seems to have been in Over Sea, Under Stone, and another family who live on a nearby farm, whom he discovers are also Old Ones, and he is hindered in his task by a couple of characters called The Walker and The Rider.

*** Possible spoiler alert -- if you haven't read this book, and want to, you might want to stop reading at this point, as it has possible plot spoilers ***

The book never explains who the Old Ones are, but we are told that they have a lot of superpowers not accessible to ordinary people, and the young/old Will Stanton learns how to use these powers by instantly absorbing a magic book. And this is, I think, why I liked this story less than Over Sea, Under Stone. The children in that book, unlike Will Stanton, are ordinary children with no superpowers. As G.K. Chesterton puts it, in his book Orthodoxy:

...oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.
Will Stanton, however
... wondered how to explain to an elder brother that an eleven-year-old was no longer quite an eleven-year-old, but a creature subtly different from the human race, fighting for its survival

That makes Will Stanton seem like something out of The Midwich Cuckoos other than being on the side of the good guys. It cuts him off from normal human relations with his family, but not for normal human reasons, but rather for inhuman ones.

The reviewer of my book also detected the influence of Charles Williams, whose novels I have read, and whose influence I freely acknowledge. Interestingly enough The Dark is Rising has several scenes which are reminiscent of Charles Williams's novel The Greater Trumps. In both books the family goes to church on Christmas day for Anglican Mattins, and on the way home rescue a homeless wanderer from a snowstorm which turns into a supernatural blizzard. The difference is that in The Greater Trumps the characters are normal human beings, though they do have access to magical objects. In The Dark is Rising, however, there is a deus ex machina in almost every chapter, and sometimes more than one.

At one point Will Stanton does face a moral choice where his decision could make a difference, when the bad guys have kidnapped his sister Mary, and they threaten to kill her if he does not hand over the signs he has gathered. He refusesw, but Mary is in no real danger, because she is rescued by a deus ex machina.

I did enjoy reading the book, but I don't think it was as good as the first one.

And then, going beyond simply reviewing this book, I come to the comparison with my own. If there were some things I didn't much like about this book, how did I do it differently (or try to -- it is for the reader to judge whether I succeeded) in my books?

In my children's book Of Wheels and Witches and its sequel The Enchanted Grove the child characters are normal human beings, with no superpowers. Some of their opponents are human, and some have magical or supernatural powers, so there is a fantasy element in the books, but I have tried to give the children moral agency, so that their choices do make a difference, and do have consequences, some of which could be foreseen and others not. But as I said, it's up to the reader to judge how well I succeeded.

View all my reviews

30 May 2021

The Madonna of Excelsior

The Madonna Of Excelsior

The Madonna Of Excelsior by Zakes Mda
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A novel that has a little bit of everything, almost -- a sex scandal, sibling rivalry, political chicanery, and believable characters. And so much of it is true, I read it in the newspaper 50 years ago.

It is set in a real small town in the Free State province of South Africa, and is based on real events, so the usual disclaimer about the characters not resembling any real persons, living or dead, is somewhat differently worded. Though the events are a matter of public record, the characters are fictitious. I've written a few books set in a small South African town, but having lived in a small town myself, I didn't dare to use a  real town as the setting, but Zakes Mda boldly does so, and his book is all the more realistic as a result.

But the fictitious characters do resemble real people. And the book gives a microcosm of South Africa in the last three decades of the 20th century. Excelsior is a real town, and it really was rocked by a sex scandal in the early 1970s. The neighbouring towns, mentioned in the book, are real and I have been to, or through some of them.

And at least one of the characters is real, Father Frans Claerhout, a Roman Catholic and artist who lived at Tweespruit just south of Excelsior, and descriptions of whose paintings at the beginning of each chapter form a linking motif for the story.

Popi Pule has two half-brothers; one, Viliki Pule, is black, and the other, Tjaart Cronje, is white, and all three were born in apartheid South Africa, much of whose legislation was calculated to prevent precisely those kinds of relationships. Viliki and Puke's mother Niki had been Tjaart's nanny when he was small, and she is the eponymous Madonna of Excelsior, and had been a model for some of Father Frans Claerhout's paintings.

People sometimes ask, what was South Africa like during apartheid, and during and after the end of apartheid, and in this book Zakes Mda nails it. He tells it like it is, and was. He has written several books set in South Africa, and each of the ones I've read gives an accurate picture of some or other aspect of South African life. There are links to some of my reviews of them here,

If but someone from another country was coming to South Africa from another country, and wanted an introduction to South African life, and history, and social relations, this is the book I would recommend to them. Since it is fiction, it doesn't have all the facts, but it does tell the truth about South Africa, the unvarnished truth. If you want to know what South Africa is really like, read this book!

View all my reviews

26 May 2021

The Quiet American

The Quiet American

The Quiet American by Graham Greene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think this is one of Graham Greene's best books. I find Graham Greene a bit like Stephen Kind -- I like some of his books a lot, and others I don't like much at all. This is definitely one that I liked.

Thomas Fowler is a reporter for a British newspaper, reporting on the French colonial war in Vietnam when the Americans are just beginning to get involved. One of the new people at the American embassy, Pyle, tries to befriend Fowler, and falls in love with his girlfriend, Phuong, whom he steals, ever so politely. 

Fowler tries to be neutral in his reporting, and to remain uninvolved, but Pyle's role causes him to reexamine his approach, and but he is never sure whether his actions are due to Pyle's political role or his own jealousy. 

Perhaps one reason that the book appealed to me so much is that it reminded me of my time in Namibia in the early 1970s. Namibia was then in a colonial situation, under South African rule, as Vietnam had been under France 15 years earlier, and I was, like the protagonist in The Quiet American, a journalist. And something Greene wrote illuminated a difference that I was aware of, but fund difficult to describe.

In December 1971 there was a big strike of Ovambo contract workers in what was then known as South West Africa. One of the interesting differences in the approach to journalism came on the second day of the strike, Tuesday 14th December 1971. My friend David de Beer and I worked for the local Anglican Church, and I also worked on the local paper, and we were also stringers ("correspondents") for the Argus Africa News service, which supplied most of the South African evening newspapers. But the strike was big news, so some of the newspapers sent their own in-house reporters to cover it, and one of them was Alan Hardy of The Star of Johannesburg.

Pastor Maasdorp of the Lutheran Church had said that one of their evangelists had been arrested in the Ovambo compound, and that Pastor Haufiku was busy trying to bail him out. Alan Hardy immediately phoned Brigadier Brandt, the local police chief, who denied that there had been any arrests. Dave and I went out to see Pastor Haufiku to check up, and he confirmed it, and said he would take us to see the evangelist, Thomas Nalupi. And Thomas Nalupi showed us his admission of guilt receipt.

This ties up with an interesting passage in The Quiet American, where the protagonist, the journalist Thomas Fowler says:

It had been an article of my creed. The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved. My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action—even an opinion is a kind of action.

Alan Hardy was a reporter, Dave de Beer and I were correspondents. And that describes the difference between us. To confirm a report that there had been arrests, the reporter asked the chief of police. That would never have occurred to us correspondents. For us the convincing evidence was the admission of guilt receipt.

There was more, perhaps. Alan Hardy was a bit older than us, but not by much. But he belonged to a different generation. We belonged to the 1968 generation. It had been, for both Dave and me, our last year as full-time students, and that was the year of student power, which had been immediately preceded by the year of flower power. But both hippie flower power and student power shared a distrust of authority. I had even developed a theological rationale for it. One of the slogans was "Don't trust anyone over 30," and I had just passed my 30th birthday, though I thought the least trustworthy age was between 40 and 60, when people were at the most powerful stages of their careers and were most likely to be embedded in and thus wedded to the System.

Of course the trouble with us was that we seldom adhered to the "audi alteram partem" rule, but then neither did the establishment reporters. They put the point of view of the establishment, businessmen, employers, government officials, whereas we reported what we heard from the underside -- the strikers and ordinary workers and those who ministered to them. And Graham Greene in this book illustrated the difference very clearly. 

And perhaps even more clearly he showed the shallowness and folly of much American foreign policy. Pyle, the eponymous "quiet American", was a fan or a particular (fictional) foreign policy wonk called York Harding. And at one point Dave de Beer met just such an American foreign policy wonk by the name of George Kennan, who struck Dave as incredibly naive. Kennan talked as though all he had to do was press some magic button in the depths of the Pentagon and all Namibia's problems would be instantly solved. 

I have sometimes wondered since then whether George Kennan was playing some devious game, and trying to appear more naive than he actually was, but since reading Graham Greene's book I wonder if he wasn't the model for York Harding.

View all my reviews

25 May 2021

Missiology and the colour of fish

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss

I haven't read this, but GoodReads recommended it to me, based on the books in my Missiology shelf. That intrigued me. I see most of my GoodReads friends who have rated it gave it a high rating, -- perhaps they can tell me what it has to say about missiology. 

Here are some of the books on my missiology shelf, and I'm not sure how the Dr Seuss book fits in with these:

  • Allen, Roland 1962 [1912]. Missionary methods: St Paul's or ours.
  • Allen, Roland 1960. The spontaneous expansion of the church and the causes which hinder it.
  • Bosch, D.J 1991. Transforming mission.
  • Davies, John D. 1983. The faith abroad.
  • Kaplan, Steven 1984. The monastic holy man and the Christianization of early Solomonic Ethiopia.
  • Stamoolis, James 1986. Eastern Orthodox mission theology today.
  • Bosch, David 1980. Witness to the world: the Christian mission in theological perspective.
  • Veronis, Luke 2009. Go forth: stories of mission and resurrection in Albania.
  • Griffiths, Michael 1980. Shaking the sleeping beauty: arousing the church to its mission.
  • Ajayi, J.F. Ade 1965. Christian missions in Nigeria, 1841-1891: the making of a new elite.
  • Anderson, Gerald; Stransky, Thomas F. 1976. Mission Trends No 3: Third-World Theologies.
  • Becken, Hans-Jurgen (ed) 1973. Relevant theology for Africa.
  • Beeching, Jack 1979. An open path: Christian missionaries, 1515 - 1914.
  • Beidelman, T.O 1982. Colonial evangelism.
  • Bevans, Stephen B. & Schroeder, Roger P 2004. Constants in context: a theology of mission for today.
  • Bhebe, Ngwabi 1979. Christianity and traditional religion in western Zimbabwe 1859-1923.
  • Bonk, Jonathan 1989. The theory and practice of missionary identification 1860-1920.
  • Burridge, Kenelm 1991. In the Way: a study of Christian missionary endeavours.
  • Carter, John 1963. Methods of mission in Southern Africa.
  • Cnattingius, Hans 1952. Bishops and societies: a study of Anglican colonial and missionary expansion 1698-1850.
  • Dvornik, Francis 1970. Byzantine missions among the Slavs.
  • Ellanna, Linda J. & Balluta, Andrew 1992. Nuvendaltin Quht'ana: the people of Nondalton.
  • Farmer, Edwin 1900. The Transvaal as a mission field.
  • Fraser, Donald 1970 (1914). Winning a primitive people.
  • Gerber, Vergil 1979 [1974]. God's way to keep a church going and growing.
  • Hesselgrave, David J 1988. Today's choices for tomorrow's mission.
  • Jarrett-Kerr, Martin 1961. African pulse: scenes from an African hospital window.
  • Kraemer, Hendrik 1956. Religion and the Christian faith.
  • Linney, Barry W. 2000. 21st Century Faith: Radical Living in a new Millennium.
  • Luzbetak, Louis 1988. The church and cultures: new perspectives in missiological anthropology.
  • McGavran, Donald A 1979. Ethnic realities and the church: lessons from India.
  • Milner, Clyde A. & McNeil, Floyd A 1985. Churchmen and the Western Indians.
  • Nemer, Lawrence 1981. Anglican and Roman Catholic attitudes on missions.
  • Niles, D.T. 1963. Upon the Earth.
  • Oleksa, Michael (ed.) 1987. Alaskan missionary spirituality.
  • Oswalt, Wendell H 1990. Bashful no longer: an Alaskan Eskimo ethnohistory, 1778-1988.

I used quite a number of them for writing my doctoral thesis in missiology, but I seem to have missed the Dr Seusss one. Was my missiology thesis any the worse for that?

Actually one of my favourite missiology books doesn't seem to have made the list, so I'll give it a plug here -- it's Orthodox Alaska by Father Michael Oleksa, and you can read more about it here: Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission by Michael Oleksa | Goodreads.

It too seems to have a rather strange list of "readers also liked" books -- only one of those in the top ten seemed to have anything to do with missiology, but some of them nevertheless seemed quite interesting.

So here;s a challenge to fellow missiologists on GoodReeds. Look at the books on your missiology shelf, and share what the top one is, and how many missiology books appear in your top ten. Perhaps it will show how widely-read missiologists are.

And perhaps it ought to show that, because missiology is an interdisciplinary  field of study, covering theology, history, sociology, anthropology and several other things as well. But fish?

View all my reviews

14 May 2021

Over sea, under stone

Over Sea, Under Stone

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book has been on my "to read" list for about four years now, as has the whole The Dark is Rising series. because friends recommended it, or wrote good reviews of it.

My search became more urgent when a reviewer compared my children's books Of Wheels and Witches and The Enchanted Grove to the whole "The Dark is Rising" sequence, and suggested that it might have been an influence on my writing.

It couldn't have been an influence on me, because I hadn't read it yet, but there certainly are similar tropes in both my children's books -- children on a quest, getting separated and searching for each other, an older boy who is a bully, some getting captured by the villains and threatened by them. There is even a hair binding that comes undone causing one character to lose her pony tail. But my influence came more from Alan Garner and I wonder if Susan Cooper's did too. It seems that they did meet, and regarded each other as kindred spirits.

Anyway I found the book a very good read. I liked the characters, the children especially, since more than half the adult characters were evil. It is a story of three children, Simon, Jane and Barney Drew, who go with their parents and a great uncle (who is not really a relative, but rather a friend of the family) to spend a holiday in a house in Cornwall, whose owner has gone off for a holiday somewhere else. They find an abandoned document and map, which they use to play games of seeking treasure, and then find that it is really old, and some evil people are also looking for it. 

In the Good Reads page for the book there was a question about why the book was written in such an old-fashioned way, and so I watched out for that while reading it. As some people remarked, it could be because it was written over 50 years ago, and speech was different then. In the book the children wore "plimsolls", but by the time the Harry Potter books appeared, 30 years later, "plimsolls" had become "trainers", so that would probably have appeared old-fashioned even 25 years ago, when the Harry Potter books first appeared. I was particularly aware of that when I went to England in the 1960s, because I thought of "plimsolls" as marks on ships, and we called such footwear "tackies" (sometimes spelt "takkies"), both then and now -- the term is applied to any shoes with canvas uppers and rubber soles.

Some language would have appeared old-fashioned even in the 1960s -- I don't recall any children at that time referring to their male parent as "Father" with a capital F. But what really struck me as an anachronism was that one of the characters found two 50 pence pieces in his pocket, in a book published in 1965. Even in 1968, when the edition I read was alleged to have been published, though two of the new decimal coins were beginning to circulate, a 50p piece was not among them, they were still 10-bob notes. So if 10-bob notes miraculously changed into 50p coins, why did plimsolls not change into trainers? Or Father into Dad?

The edition of Over sea, under stone that I read was illustrated by pen and ink drawings by Margery Gill. The illustrations were appropriate to the text, but though the faces were drawn very well, the legs were not, and looked like those of children in pictures used to illustrate children freed from concentration camps suffering from malnutrition. Such legs could not have carried anyone fast enough to do all the running away they had to do from the villains. This particular picture, however, was one of the ones with more realistic legs. 

I recently re-read three of Alan Garner's children's books, and comparing his language to Susan Cooper's, I find his more terse and taut, which conveys a sense of urgency in the way it is written. 

I was inspired to write my children's (and other fiction) by a conversation between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, in which they said that if they wanted to see more of the kind of stories they liked, they should have to write them themselves. And I liked stories by Charles Williams and Alan Garner. But it seems that Susan Cooper has also written the kind of stories I like, and all but two of them are waiting for me to read therm.

Her writings are not entirely new to me, however. Back in the 1960s I did read Mandrake by Susan Cooper, which was adult science fiction rather than children's fantasy. I was reading it on the train from London to Bournemouth at the very time Dr Verwoerd was shot, and it was in fact about an English version of the Verwoerdian dream, where a British prime minister decided that everyone had to go back to their "homeland", and enacted laws to force them to do so. I never saw another book by Susan Cooper in a bookshop after that, though I see she has written quite a lot, and I'm putting more on my "want to read" list. 

I've spent some time commenting on the language in this review, but that's because I found little else to criticise, and because someone asked a question about it. And now I hope I'll be able to find the rest of the series and renew my acquaintance with the characters. 

View all my reviews

14 April 2021

Book cover fashions: the headless torso

 I've commented before on the current fashion, in some circles, for having headless male torsos to illustrate book covers -- see Urban fantasy, mediocrity, and the male torso | Notes from underground, but now that I'm thinking of revising and reissuing one of my children's books with a new cover, I'm wondering about the possibilities.

This seems to be a fairly common theme for a cover nowadays...

... though one wonders what the faceless characters are like in the book. 

So I'm wondering if my revised children's adventure-fantasy story should follow a similar theme, something upon these lines.

How important is it that book covers should follow the latest fashions? Will it enhance sales if the book has a headless torso, and diminish sales if it lacks one? And who is attracted to books with headless torsos anyway? Does anybody know?

If I give that picture to a book-cover designer, would they be able to turn it into a suitable cover design? Does it matter that the kid in the picture is blowing bubbles? The protagonist in my story doesn't blow bubbles, but he doesn't lack a head either, in the story.

Are there any other important tropes in book covers that one needs to take into account? If so, what are they?

11 April 2021

[Writing a ThrillerWriting a Thriller by Andre Jute
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the things that I am still a bit confused about is literary genres, and people seem to have so many different names for them that it gets very confusing. Some are used by publishers to say what kinds of books they do or don't publish, and those are reasonably clear -- crime, romance, children's etc. So when I found a couple of books on writing thrillers in the local library,I read them to try to answer the question "What is a thriller?"

The first one I read, Writing the Thriller (my review here), was also because I was doing a final edit on my children's book, The Enchanted Grove. My book is an adventure story, rather than a thriller, but where does one draw the line? And even adventure stories have thrilling scenes in them, where the characters are in danger, don't they?

Writing a Thriller by Andre Jute at least answered that question for me. The adventure story has the characters in danger from external enemies. In the thriller the situation is complicated by betrayal from within. The thriller is therefore more complex.

The only problem with that definition is that many books advertised as thrillers might not actually be thrillers.

I found this book more useful for clarifying that and similar questions that I had. But it is also an older book, and may not be so useful to would-be thriller writers in the information it gives on the publishing process and manuscript submission. Clearly, it was written when word processors were in their infancy, and assumed that most people would be typing their story directly onto paper, and editing the paper typescript, and cutting and pasting literally with scissors and paste, and not in the sense of the Microsoft Windows metaphor.

The book also cites some of the thrillers that the author himself has written as examples, Reverse Negative and Sinkhole, but I notice that neither has a single review or rating on GoodReads. And, on a personal note, the author seems to have a strong prejudice against missionaries, and as a missiologist, I have a particular interest in missionaries, but that is just a personal prejudice and shouldn't affect one's evaluation of the book.

If you're thinking of writing a thriller, it could be a useful book to read, bearing in mind that it deals with dated technology. But the actual writing advice is generally useful.

View all my reviews

07 April 2021

Earworms and dreams

 Odd how thoughts develop. I find myself humming the tune of What a friend we have in Jesus, and the name Joseph Medlicott Scriven pops into my head. He wrote either the words or music, I forget which, and I know that because it was printed in the Methodist Hymn Book that we had at St Stithians College. And I recall that the first line of the preface said "Methodism was born in song". So that is the main thing I know about Methodism. I did learn some things in my six years at St Stithians, and those are some of them.

Then last night I had an interesting dream, well interesting to me at least, it's probably boring to most people.

I was at a conference (why do I always dream about conferences?) where we were all issued with fat books containing a report on South African Foreign Policy, and I rejected it because it immediately made me think of Pik Botha, then wondered why I thought that, because Pik Botha has been dead for years and has had no
influence on foreign policy for a long time.

Anyway, that's what I wrote in my diary today. We write mostly boring stuff like that in diaries because under Covid lockdowns we don't go out much and nothing much happens. We hear what our friends are doing on Facebook and other social media, and we post pictures of sunrises and sunsets, Here's my picture of the sunrise this morning. I posted it on Facebook too. My cousin Jenny in Durban did get out today, however. She went to the dentist. She posted a picture of a tollbooth in the rain which she passed on the way.

Speaking of Pik Botha, one of the best political jokes I've ever heard was about him. 

It was when Benny Alexander changed his name to KhoiSan-X, And someone remarked that if Benny Alexander was KhoiSan-X, then Pik Botha must be Guronsan-C. 

But then I haven't seen Guronsan-C advertised for a long time. It was advertised as something that could revitalise decrepit old fogeys like me.

But the best thing that happened to me today is that Dan'l Danehy-Oakes read one of my books and wrote a review of it. If you're a member of GoodReads and feeling benevolent, go and read and "like" his review. If you're feeling especially benevolent, you could comment on it.  

And then I saw this on Twitter:

A professor of mine went to go hear Derrida speak once. The entire talk was about cows; everyone was flummoxed but listened carefully, and took notes about...cows. There was a short break, and when Derrida came back, he was like, “I’m told it is pronounced ‘chaos.’”

I once went to hear Derrida speak. Should I put that on my CV?

Have a nice uneventful day!




30 March 2021

Reading old books

March 21 is commemorated as Human Rights Day in South Africa, and it also commemorates the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960. Yet a survey showed that very few young people know what the Sharpeville massacre was.

A similar question was asked a few years ago about how many books people have read that were published before they were born. It's similar not in that it has to do with knowledge of a specific historical event, but rather enables one to realise that the past is another country, a different world, with a different culture. Reading books published at different times can be almost as broadening as travelling to different countries, perhaps even more so.

Since then I have tried to keep a record of the books I have read that were published before I was born, and here's my list over the last five years. How many of them have you read, and which others have you read that were published before you were born?

  • Ballantyne, R.M. . 1966 [1857] The Coral Island.
  • Conrad, Joseph. 1955 [1904] Nostromo.
  • Dickens, Charles. 1981. Bleak House.
  • Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 1959 [1880] The brothers Karamazov.
  • Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 2009. Devils.
  • Eliot, George. s.a. Adam Bede.
  • Greene, Graham. 1974 [1936] A gun for sale.
  • Haggard, H. Rider. 1965 [1910] Queen Sheba's ring.
  • Haggard, H. Rider. 1972. Jess.
  • Haggard, H. Rider. 1979. King Solomon's mines.
  • Huxley, Aldous. 1994 [1926] Jesting Pilate: the diary of a journey.
  • Kingsley, Charles. s.a. The Heroes.
  • Kipling, Rudyard. 1994. Puck of Pook's Hill.
  • Montgomery, L.M. 1994 [1908] Anne of Green Gables.
  • Nesbit, E. 1978. Five children and It.
  • Nesbit, E. 1978. The Phoenix and the Carpet.
  • Nesbit, E. 1986 [1899] The story of the treasure seekers.
  • Sayers, Dorothy. 1970 [1931] The Five Red Herrings.
  • Steinbeck, John. 1967 [1939] Cannery Row.
  • Sterne, Lawrence. 1948. Tristram Shandy.
  • Tolstoy, Leo. 1926 [1899] Resurrection.
  • Turgenev, Ivan. 1967. On the Eve.
  • Turgenev, Ivan. 2015 [1862] Fathers and sons.

I've also been reading books about writing, and find it interesting to see the contradictory advice given to writers on what they should be reading to imporve their writing. One said that one should only read books published in the last couple of years, because that way you will know what kind of books are currently popular and will sell well. 

Others, as I said, point out that your own writing will have greater depth and greater human sympathy if you read books published before you were born. 

Want to give it a try?

Read this:

Read a book published before you were born this year

18 March 2021

Jess by H. Rider Haggard: love story or political rant?

JessJess by H. Rider Haggard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

H. Rider Haggard is probably best known for his fantasy-adventure stories of imaginary peoples in unknown lands. This one is romance-adventure in a known land -- known to Rider Haggard anyway -- the Transvaal before, during and after the First Anglo-Boer War.

Rider Haggard was there, for at least part of the time. He was the one who raised the British flag when a litlle group of part-time soldiers ands civil servants from Natal marched to Pretoria and annexed the South African Republic as the Transvaal, with hardly a mutter of protest from the eastwhile republican citizens.

A few years later, however, some of the republicans, dissatisfied with British rule, rebelled, and the result was the First Anglo-Boer War. The war lasted less than six months, from December 1880 to March 1881, and resulted in the retrocession of the Transvaal, which, this book makes clear, was a huge disappointment to Haggard.

In the story, John Niel goes to work on a farm near Wakkerstroom, owned by an old Englishman, Silas Croft, whose two orphaned nieces live with him. John Niel falls in love with both nieces, first one and then the other, and they both fall in love with him, and the main theme of the book is the conflicting romantic interests. The outbreak of war complicates things, and disrupts their relationships, and enables the chief villain of the story, Frank Muller, who has a crush on Bessie, to manipulate things in his favour..

This book, far more than his fantasy stories, is permeated with Haggard's racism and imperialism, and can be seen at one level as a piece of of political propaganda disguised as a love story.

The political background is this: Lord Carnarvon, who was Conservative Secretary of State for the Colonies 1874-1878, impressed by the Confederation of Canada in 1867, wanted to achieve a similar confederation in South Africa, which was then a patchwork of British colonies, Boer republics, and independent African principalities and kingdoms, the most powerful of which was Zululand under King Cetshwayo. Political tensions between these often led to British military intervention at great expense to the British taxpayer, and uniting them under one political authority on the Canadian model would, Carnarvon thought, reduce causes of conflict, and enable them to pay for their own military.

The first step to achieving this was to take over the Boer South African Republic (ZAR), which became the Transvaal Colony, where, as previously stated, H.Rider Haggard had raised the British flag. There had been a border dispute between the ZAR and Zululand, which the Natal colony adjudicated and found in favour of Zululand (the Keate Award), but having taken over the Transvaal they became a party to the dispute and reneged on the agreement. Britain therefore provoked a war with Zululand (the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879) in pursuit of the Confederation ideal, and having neutralised Zulu power also reduced the desire of Transvalers for British rule and protection, hence the rebellion of the Transvaal Boers, which became the first Anglo-Boer War, or the First War of Independence for the Transvaal Boers. During the two wars, in 1879 and 1881, the British military suffered its biggest defeats of the 19th century -- first at Isandlwana in the Anglo-Zulu War, and two years later at Majuba (near Wakkerstroom) in the Anglo-Boer War.

At the same time the Conservative government in Britain was replaced by a Liberal one, with William Gladstone as Prime Minister. The Liberals were far less imperialist than the Conservatives, and thought that Lord Carnarvon's Confederation plan was totally impractical and far too expensive, and so handed back the Transvaal to the victorious Boers, much to Rider Haggard's chagrin, expressed throughout Jess.

But the Liberal interlude was merely the calm before the storm. By the mid-1880s the New Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa had got under way, with Haggard's approval, expressed in a footnote in my edition of the book.

These words were written ten years ago, but since then, with all gratitude, be it said, a change has come over the spirit of the nation, or rather the spirit of the nation has re-asserted itself. Though the 'little England' party [ie the less-imperialist Liberals] still lingers, it exists upon the edge of its own grave. The dominance and responsibilities of our Empire are no longer a question of party politics and among the Radicals of today [ie the 1890s] we find some of the most ardent imperialists [eg the Conservative Secretary of State for Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, who was a Radical 'gas and water socialist;']. So may it ever be! H.R.H. 1896.
In Jess therefore, Haggard portrays the Boers in the worst possible light, since they are the enemies of the British empire. Most of the Boers in the book are caricatures, including the villain, Frank Muller. The Zulus fare slightly better, having been defeated by the British two years earlier (than the time of the story), but are still, in Haggard's eyes, very much an inferior race compared with the British, as are the Hottentots.

The villain, Frank Muller, seems a bit over the top. He oscillates wildly between uttering flattering endearments and violent threats to Bessie, whom he claims to love. No one in his right mind would imagine that such threats could persuade someone to love them; they are utterly incompatible with any kind of love. But perhaps Frank Muller is a rather extreme example of a psychopath and is portrayed rather well. If a psychopath is someone who has no conception of love at all, but is a person whose every utterance is calculated to manipulate other people, then perhaps Rider Haggard has portrayed Frank Muller very well as such a character.

I enjoyed the book at two levels: first, as a love story, it was well-written and had plenty of drama. Secondly, for its historical interest, it shows the British imperialist reaction to events of the late 1870s and early 1880s. Though his main characters may be fictional, the contemporary political figures Haggard mentions: Carnarvon, Gladstone, Shepstone, Lanyon, Kruger and others, are real, and we can learn something of Haggard's reaction to them as an ardent imperialist. Haggard clearly expected his readers to know who these people were and what they had done, because in this book he tells us in no uncertain terms what he thought of what they had done. On the other hand, Haggard's philosophical asides tend to become rambling and rather tedious, but perhaps that reflects the current taste for the "show don't tell" fashion of fiction writing.

View all my reviews

03 March 2021

The Enchanted Grove

 My new children's book, The Enchanted Grove, is now available in paperback from Lulu Bookshop. It is suitable for kids aged 9-12 (and also for those kids over 25 who enjoy reading children's stories like the Narnia books).

It is also available as an ebook in various formats from most ebook retailers, like Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo etc. and from Smashwords. A Kindle version is also available from Amazon.

Jeffery, Janet and Catherine spend their summer school holidays swimming and riding horses in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa. But then they have to deal with bullying teenagers who are into witchcraft, poachers, and the strange guardian of a cave of Bushman paintings. And just when it seems that things couldn’t possibly get worse, the children stumble across a secret government project that the police think they know far too much about. 

The story is set in December 1964, in the southern Drakensberg, in the fictional village of Pineville (so no one will be tempted to try to identify any of the characters, other than contemporary political leaders, with actual historical characters).

The Enchanted Grove is a sequel to Of Wheels and Witches, which is about an earlier adventure of Jeffery, Janet and Catherine and their friend Sipho. But each story stands on its own, and they do not need to be read in any particular order.

Read a sample chapter here:


978-1-920707-63-7 Lulu (paperback)
978-1-920707-64-4 Kindle e-book
978-1-920707-65-1 Smashwords ebook

Of Wheels and Witches is at present only available as an e-book, but if The Enchanted Grove sells well, I might bring out a paperback edition of Of Wheels and Witches as well.

If you have read The Enchanted Grove I would be grateful if you write a review, on your blog, or in any journal or magazine you contribute to, or on the Smashwords page or the GoodReads page for the book.

28 February 2021

Historical mysteries, adventure tales, and books inspired by them

She (She, #1)She by H. Rider Haggard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book twice when I was at school, and thought it the best book by H. Rider Haggard that I had read. Reading it again as an adult I could remember little but the horrible end of the eponymous "She", but as I read through it I wondered how it was that I remembered it with such fondness, because there were long passages of religious and quasi-philosophical reflection that must surely have been boring to a child. The actual adventure is mainly in the last 50 pages or so.

Part of the appeal, for me at least, lies in the setting, the meta-story, as it were, which involves a historical mystery. Horace Holly, a Cambridge don, is asked by a dying friend to be guardian of his young son, Leo Vincey, and is given a box to be opened on Leo's 25th birthday. The box contains the story of Leo's descent from an ancient Egyptian priest, and a love triangle that results in his death at the hands of a mysterious woman living somewhere in central Africa.

As a result Holly and Leo Vincey travel to central Africa in the hope of solving the historical mystery, using clues scrawled on an ancient potsherd in ancient Greek. I suppose that it was enjoying such stories as a child that gave me a taste for history and historical research, so that I still enjoy solving the puzzles one encounters in family history and other historical research, where each mystery solved leads to a fresh mystery that seems to defy solution. And I suppose that is why I still enjoyed this book several decades later.

And such stories of ancient mysteries leading to modern adventures still seem to appeal to later tastes, as the series of Indiana Jones films produced about a century later shows.

View all my reviews

But, as many books do, this one sparked off thoughts that go beyond a mere review. In this case it led me to wonder whether C.S. Lewis had read She, and whether it had given him some inspiration in writing The Magician's Nephew, which is now next on my re-reading list.

The bit about The Magician's Nephew was sparked off by reading this passage, in which She proposes to marry Leo (whom she confuses with his remote ancestor Kallikrates), go with him back to England, and make him king and herself queen: 

“But we have a queen already," broke in Leo, hastily. “It is naught, it is naught,” said Ayesha ; "she can be overthrown."

At this we both broke out into an exclamation of dismay, and explained that we should as soon think of overthrowing ourselves.

“But here is a strange thing,” said Ayesha, in astonishment -- "а
queen whom her people love! Surely the world must have changed since I dwelt in Kôr."

Again we explained that it was the character of monarchs that had changed, and that the one under whom we lived was venerated and beloved by all right-thinking people in her vast realms. Also, we told her that real power in our country rested in the hands of the people, and that we were in fact ruled by the votes of the lower and least educated classes of the community.

“Ah,” she said, "a democracy -- then surely there is a tyrant, for I have long since seen that democracies, having no clear will of their own, in the end set up a tyrant, and worship him.

“Yes,” I said, " we have our tyrants.

“Well," she answered resignedly, we can at any rate destroy these tyrants, and Kallikrates shall rule the land.”

I instantly informed Ayesha that in England "blasting" was not an amusement that could be indulged in with impunity, and that any such attempt would meet with the consideration of the law and probably end upon a scaffold.

"The law," she laughed with scorn -- "the law! Canst thou not understand, O Holly, that I am above the law, and so shall Kallikrates be also ? All human law will be to us as the north wind to a mountain. Does the wind bend the mountain, or the mountain the wind ?

This appears very similar to the attitude of Jadis, the former Queen of the dead world Charn, when she comes to England, and later to Narnia.

And I suppose I was inspired by reading books like this as a child to incorporate the trope of ancient mysteries inspiring or contributing to modern adventures into my own story The Year of the Dragon, where I used the legend of Lobengula's treasure in a similar way. 

In this case, the real life event was a story found in the archives about John Jacobs. In 1908 Jacobs persuaded Susman, a Jewish trader at Lialui, and later of Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia, to search for Lobengula's treasure in Portuguese territory. Susman said after travelling for 3 months, Jacobs became more and more hazy about their goal. Eventually Susman flogged Jacobs, and was fined in court. Jacobs was deported from Northern Rhodesia in 1909. Then Jacobs persuaded Samuel Brander (the founder of the Ethiopian Catholic Church in Zion) to go on a similar treasure hunt, and they travelled there in 1917, but left without finding any treasure. On the way back Jacobs was arrested in Southern Rhodesia and charged under the immigration laws This story is found in a Memorandum from the Secretary for Native Affairs in Livingstone, dated 5 Aug 1917, in the Tshwane Archives Depot at NTS 1420 5/214.

And it was just such stories that authors like Rider Haggard used as triggers for adventure. John Jacobs was doubtless a con man, but the fantasies of con men can lead to interesting adventure stories.

17 February 2021

Historical novel and fantasy subgenre

The Golden Horde (Tales of Old Russia #3)

The Golden Horde by Peter Morwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this book cheap on a sale 21 years ago and never read it because when I got home I discovered that it was part of a series, and we did not have the first two parts. Then, with the library closed because of Covid, I took it off the shelf where it had sat all these years, and discovered that it is a mixture of two genres -- the historical novel and the fantasy/fairy story. As most of my attempts to write fiction have been in the same sub-genre, and the one I've been writing most recently has a similar setting, I thought it was time I read it if only to see how someone else handles that particular genre, and how they handle similar tropes. 

The Golden Horde is set in Russia in the 13th century, in the time of the Mongol invasions, and to begin with I did not like it very much and nearly abandoned it after the first couple of chapters, but then it seemed to improve. There are references to the preceding volumes in the series, which I still don't have, but it stands up quite well as a stand-alone story.

So much for my actual review of the book -- to say much more would reveal too much of the plot, so if you haven't read it and might want to, stop reading here.

I didn't much like the way Peter Morwood handled some of the historical figures mentioned, and some of the tropes. Perhaps that is prejudice on my part; for example, as an Orthodox Christian I was sorry that he had nothing good to say about St Alexander Nevsky. Now Alexander Nevsky is not my favourite saint, mainly because, as a pacifist, I am not drawn to soldier saints very much, or at least I am more drawn to the ones who, like St Martin of Tours, became conscientious objectors. But the Orthodox Church is not a "peace church" like the Quakers and the Mennonites. It has as both soldier saints and peacenik saints. And in the times in which St Alexander Nevsky lived, it was almost impossible for anyone in political leadership not to be drawn into wars. But Peter Morwood seems to think that sorcery is the better option, and his portrayal of St Alexander Nevsky is entirely negative.

In other tropes, however, there is a hint of the Inklings, especially the novels of Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis in his novel That Hideous Strength. Batu, Khan of the Golden Horde, collects the crowns of the Russian princes he conquers. Those who surrender hand over their crowns voluntarily, in acknowledgement that henceforth they rule at the Khan's pleasure. Those who do not surrender their crowns have them taken by force. And the accumulation of crowns represents a dangerous accumulation of power, which irrupts into the world in Charles Williams fashion when a group of Russian nobles decide to offer a sacrifice to Chernibog, an old Russian pagan god. 

To counter this, the Princess and sorceress Mar'ya Morevna uses her grimoire to summon Byelobog, the white god of ancient Russia. As Morwood describes it:

To the Tatars, that was Tangri the Eternal Blue Sky fighting Erlik Khan with his thunderbolt, though Ivan knew there was at least one old servant who had come with him down from Khorlov who would see Othinn or Thorr wielding spear or hammer against their old adversary Jorungandr  the Midgarth-serpent. To some of the Russians, it would be Byelobog struggling with Chernobog, but the rest would see the Archangel Mikhail come to do battle against the darkness and the old serpent, not for them alone, but for all thee wide white world.

... echoes of the scene in That Hideous Strength where the gods of the planets descended on Belbury, where all the evil in Thulcandra has gathered.

View all my reviews

06 February 2021

Enid Blyton and the "Famous Five"

Five Go to Demon's Rock (The Famous Five, #19)

Five Go to Demon's Rock by Enid Blyton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book has all the usual Enid Blyton trade marks -- a superfluity of exclamation marks, stilted and unconvincing dialogue, and an adventure that doesn't begin until two-thirds of the way through the book. It also, however, has a weak and unconvincing plot.

So why did I buy it and read it?

We went to the library last Tuesday and it was closed -- a member of staff had tested positive for Covid-19, so all the rest of the staff were in quarantine. So we went to a second-hand bookshop to get something to read. I found  a few books, and then asked for their children's book section, but they only pointed me to a teenage books section. Then when I was paying for the other books, I saw this one in a pile on the counter, and picked it up. The woman in front of me in the queue said, "Ah, Enid Blyton, the Famous Five and the Secret Seven" and that started a conversation with a couple of staff members as well, who also recalled the Famous Five and the Secret Seven.

And I wondered about that. As a child, I read and enjoyed some books by Enid Blyton, but the Famous Five and the Secret Seven were not among them. I had read one or two Famous Five books and found them boring and unmemorable, and did not read any more. Now, as an adult, I bought this book mainly to see what the appeal was. And this one had all the faults of Enif Blyton's writing with none of the good points of her better children's adventure stories, like The Secret of Kilimooin and The Mountain of Adventure.

Arthur Ransome wrote some children's stories where the "adventure" was simply going and camping out on their own, so the adventure in this case, the children's encounter with some criminals, need not necessarily be the main part of the story, but even the camping part Arthur Ransome wrote so much better. He even, sometimes, included encounters with criminals, for example in The Big Six. But in this one the story was weak, and I didn't much like the characters either.

I bought this one, therefore, partly to see why I hadn't much liked the Famous Five as a child, and to see why the Famous Five were the first thing most people thought of if you mentioned Enid Blyton, or even children's adventure stories in general. And this one was a long way from being among the best of children's adventure stories, and also a long way from being among the best of Enid Blyton's ones.

The other reason for reading this one now is that I wrote a children's adventure story, which some reviewers compared with the Famous Five, and I rather hope that mine was a bit better than this one. 

View all my reviews


Related Posts with Thumbnails